Text / occasion – Pascoli, “Il gelsomino notturno”

On the level of discursive interpretation, the lovely ‘Il gelsomino notturno’ by Giovanni Pascoli offers significantly different ideas depending on whether you know about the circumstances of its composition. Here it is, first in Italian and then in the plain prose translation accompanying it in The Penguin Book of Italian Verse, introduced and edited by George M. Kay:

E s’aprono i fiori notturni
nell’ ora che penso a’ miei cari.
Sono apparse in mezzo ai viburni
le farfalle crepuscolari.

Da un pezzo si tacquero i gridi:
Là sola una casa bisbiglia.
Sotto l’ali dormono i nidi,
come gli occhi sotto le ciglia.

Dai calici aperti si esala
l’odore di fragole rosse.
Splende un lume là nella sala.
Nasce l’erba sopra le fosse.

Un’ ape tardiva sussurra
trovando già prese le celle.
La Chiocetta per l’aia azzurra
va col suo pigolìo di stele.

Per tutta la notte s’esala
l’ odore che passa col vento.
Passa il lume su per la scala;
brilla al primo piano: s’è spento…

È l’alba: si chiudono i petali
un poco gualciti; si cova,
dentro l’urna molle e segreta,
non so che felicità nuova.



The Jasmine at Night

     And the flowers of night open, in the hour that I think of those dear to me. The twilight butterflies have appeared among the viburnums.

     For a while now the cries have ceased: only over there a house whispers. Nests sleep under wings, like eyes under eyelids.

     The scent of red strawberries is breathed up from open chalices. A light shines there in the room. Grass springs above ditches.

     A late bee murmurs finding the cells already taken. The Hen goes through the blue barnyard followed by her chirping of stars.

     All through the night a scent rises that passes with the wind. The light passes up the stairs: shines out from the first floor: is extinguished …

     It is dawn: the petals close, slightly crumpled; there nests in the soft and secret urn some new happiness, I cannot say what.


It’s certainly germane to this poem to know that ‘la Chiocetta’ – ‘the Hen’ – is the name given by country people to the constellation of the Pleiades, as Pascoli explained in a note.

What about the knowledge that the poem was composed for a friend’s wedding? The sterner sort of New Critic or Leavisite might have declared such knowledge simply irrelevant. In my own way of reading, it takes second place to the direct sensuous impact of what it feels like to say the words, and to the pictures they put into the mind, but granting that, it greatly enriches the poem. The sequence of images makes a much more closely linked and specific sense if we are thinking of a bridal night.[1] The ceasing of the ‘gridi’ – translated as ‘cries’ by Kay, though ‘shouts’ or ‘calls’ would have been equally accurate – the silence but for the whispers in one house, the light going upstairs, the light going out, all these things become steps in the progression from the communal noise and distraction of the wedding to the moment when the bride and groom are alone together as man and wife for the first time. The final stanza becomes not a fanciful eroticising of the night-flowering jasmine but a metaphor for the sexual satisfaction and domestic happiness the watcher anticipates for his friend. It’s a happiness from which he himself is poignantly excluded. This isn’t an external deduction dependent on knowing that Pascoli himself never married. The whole poem is suffused with the wistfulness of the excluded observer. We see only the things the poet sees but see them with an intentness and yearning that echo his own.

Last Dream, Geoffrey Brock’s selection and translation of poems by Pascoli, includes a beautiful version of ‘Il gelsomino notturno’. I haven’t used that here because it’s a poetic recreation that takes greater liberties than Kay when it comes to the literal meaning of individual words and phrases, though it seems to me brilliantly sensitive to the poem’s feeling and spirit. You can read it by clicking here.

[1] It’s like watching a film in which we only see the things that Pascoli directly describes, but understand their reference to the situation of the wedding. The emotional colour comes almost entirely from the pictures the film shows and the sound track – equivalent to  the phonetic, metrical and syntactic shaping of the poem – but the meaning includes the larger context. When I say the poem to myself, my feeling of it is very  much dominated by its actual words, though writing about it may seem to give more weight to what I know about the context. I don’t imagine I’m unusual in this.

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